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Worlds of Design: Medieval Travel & Scale

We previously established the fundamentals of world-building; with a world’s basic rules down, it’s important to consider how you get around in that world. And travel was very different (read: slower) in a medieval setting.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

It’s Not That Far…

As explained by Rick Stump in “Modern Minds and Medieval Distances,” there’s a psychological aspect to travel that should be considered when role-playing in a medieval world. There’s an old saying that 100 years is a long time to Americans but not to Europeans, while 100 miles is not far to an American but far for a European. The time or distance doesn’t change, of course, but the perception is quite different.

Maps can also be deceiving. Nowadays in Western countries there are usually paved roads from most anywhere to anywhere. So when you look at a map you think of distance as closely related to the number of inches between two points on the map. But this varies with terrain and especially with technology.

I’m in the early stages of designing a game about the American Civil War (ACW), and of course I knew that the war tended to be divided into eastern and western theaters. The reason is obvious on a certain kind of map, one that shows railroad lines or one that shows the Appalachian Mountains as a barrier, as they were in those days when the railroad lines didn’t go through the mountains. Railroads were the vital method of transportation for ACW armies.

Or look at a map of the Roman Empire. What’s not obvious is that water transportation was much quicker and much cheaper than land transportation, even with the fine Roman road network. So if you just look at the map you get a completely skewed idea of how transportation (and communication) worked.

I once found online an interactive map that showed the weeks of transportation from Rome (it's gone now, but Orbis is similar). You can easily see that it would be quicker to transport something from Rome to southern Spain than from Rome to northern Italy, especially because there are not big north-south running rivers in Italy sort of analogous to the Mississippi River in the United States. River transport was much cheaper than land.

Or is It?

The standard method of transportation in medieval times was walking. Even if you had a cart to carry goods you weren’t going to ride on that cart very much, nor would a cart with solid wooden wheels go very fast. At normal walking speed, which about 3 mph, it takes a heck of a long time to get most anywhere!

Yes, we have examples of forced marches by military units in times before mechanization that are sometimes mind-boggling, as much as 50 miles in 24 hours, though more commonly 20 miles in 24 hours. What you don’t hear about such events is that a lot of soldiers did not get to the end of the march, they dropped out for various reasons or struggled along far behind.

The U.S. Army 30 years ago would periodically send their troops on “12-mile road marches,” carrying about 80 pounds of equipment; that really wore out the guys I knew, who of course weren’t doing it every day, and did not look forward to it. I think the farthest I’ve ever walked in one day was 7 miles, without a backpack, and it sure ruined me for a while (thanks partly to flat feet).

Riding a horse would make this somewhat more comfortable but not much faster. Even when you ride a horse, for a significant part of a long journey you’re walking and leading the horse. Or you won’t end up with much of a horse.

You can see how much difference magical automobiles would make in a medieval world (provided roads are available . . .), let alone something like a magic carpet. We lose some of the sense of wonder such items would invoke in medieval inhabitants because we’re accustomed to modern technology. Even something as simple as a walkie-talkie with good range would be a great wonder in a medieval world, and very useful to military operations or dungeon and wilderness adventures. Splitting the party (which as we all know “you should never do”) would be much safer and more useful with a walkie-talkie set.

Yes, our fantasy characters are tougher than we are, and more inured to drudgery, but we should keep in mind the difference between a non-mechanized society and a modern highly mechanized society, both as players and as world builders.
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Now, if the whole adventure is taking place in some advanced, bureaucratic empire with a corp of cartographers surveying the realm then perhaps it makes sense to have everyone talk about distances in precise units.
All it takes is someone with a magical no-time-limit flying device, an accurate drawing hand, and a considerable amount of time and you've got as clear a map as you could ask for.

Flyer just goes up every clear day to a few thousand feet altitude and draws what she sees below. Next clear day, she goes to a place above the edge of the last map she drew, and repeat. Half of the second day's drawing will overlap the first day's, allowing for accuracy checks.

Lather rinse repeat until you've got the D&D version of the Ordnance Survey Maps the UK have. :)
 

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Hussar

Legend
Now, if the whole adventure is taking place in some advanced, bureaucratic empire with a corp of cartographers surveying the realm then perhaps it makes sense to have everyone talk about distances in precise units.

Now, there is a strong point. The cartography we use for our games is far, far superior to anything they would have had access to. We know, to the foot, how far it is from The Keep to the Caves of Chaos. Heck, we even make mini-games out of producing accuracy when groups use mapping to draw out a dungeon and then try to guess where secret doors might be. Again, that sort of accuracy is completely out of the question if we were actually there.

But, OTOH, I certainly want my campaign maps to be a lot more accurate than that map of England. :) And a lot prettier to boot.

And FFS, put north at the top. :D :D :D
 

Ulfgeir

Adventurer
But, OTOH, I certainly want my campaign maps to be a lot more accurate than that map of England. :) And a lot prettier to boot.

And FFS, put north at the top. :D :D :D

Here is map of Scandinavia from 1572 if I read the roman numerals correctly. Have a copy of it on my wall.

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For shorter distances, then it makes sense to measure in distance. I have noticed that I kind of measure in time when it comes to the archery competitions I attend. For the Swedish championships (we have 5 per year in different disiciplines, not counting mounted archery) I will travel far. Longest was 7 hours by car (but only reason I am willing to goso far those is that they are 2-day events, requiring hotel stay). For normal competitions, I draw a limit of 2-2-.5 hours by car (per direction), that I the most I will do on a day-trip,
 

Li Shenron

Legend
What it comes down to is that it is easier to create a comprehensible map with distances, rather than times.

Since I may have several different modes of travel, I have several different travel times between any two points on the map. I cannot, in one single picture, easily depict the times between all points by foot, by water, by air, and by teleport circle. If I try to use time, I need to work with several different maps, and switch between them if I change my method of travel in the middle of the trip.

This goes double for time-changers that are transient, like traffic, or weather conditions.

When there are many variables that impact travel time, it makes sense to have your maps by distance (which doesn't typically change much on human timescales) and let the reader derive time from that.

Well yes, if the scale of the game is such that the players or the DM have to plan lots of travel options, a regular modern-accuracy map is better.

I am reasoning from my perspective which is that of a DM who never gets far enough into high levels, and also for some reason prefers to lean towards a "dark ages" setting feels rather than renaissance (i.e. move the setting feel towards the past).

So my games tend to have funny-looking treasure maps rather than cartography. Large scale maps found in books are more for showing-off moments at the table ("this is your whole world, behold!"), and to give me as a DM a sense of divine knowledge and control over the setting. But when it comes down to giving information for the PCs, I find it a lot more practical to have them gather information on travel times and other needs directly, because that's how the folks living in the fantasy world think like.

This is presumably dependent on my preference for that "dark ages" feel. Just to give a better idea, I don't generally make only accurate maps scarce, but also books.

Although what I was trying to say, is that even most of us in our modern lives tend to think more often in travel times than distances. For instance, wherever we live, we typically learned first how long it takes to reach various places of interest (school, work, post office) than how far they are. I couldn't say how many km are from the nearest hospital, but I know how long it takes by car or bus.

From the DMs point of view, there are stronger arguments for accurate maps, although for low-level games I still don't need much.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
The km are fixed, but how are they "clearer"? An extra variable like traffic still matters if you know the distance.

Which is clearer between "it takes an hour to reach the castle by horse" and "it's 50km by horse to the castle"? The first information may be subject to variables, but the second while exact it is useless without converting to time at which point even more variables enter the equation, such as elevation. Those 50km might be anything between flat road in great condition and uphill rocky with occasional chasms. If I tell you one hour, it doesn't matter if it's because it's 50km perfect road or 5km horrible road, those variables are already into account.

Exact distances are useful in the modern era because of fuel consumption and ticket prices, but still for a passenger it is not the primary information. That's why airplane passengers care about how long are the intermediate stops much more than whether the route minimizes the km.
I think another reason is that when you are drawing it out on a map so that you can consistently narrate your campaign, it's easier to map miles consistently to mm than to map hours to mm... given that latter relationship is elastic. If I use hours = mm I am risking a lot of redrawing if players get fly, or a teleport circle is created connecting two cities, or someone buys a horse (or the horse they bought dies), or the ferry sinks (or someone builds a bridge)!

When I read the map, I convert back to time - that's true - but I feel like the alternative is untenable for consistent narration of ones campaign world. One could offer players an in-world map drawn that way, as a curiosity / puzzle.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Now, if the whole adventure is taking place in some advanced, bureaucratic empire with a corp of cartographers surveying the realm then perhaps it makes sense to have everyone talk about distances in precise units.
It usually is, because the map is serving a DM who stands outside the game world. They need a consistent resource. What you are discussing makes sense in-world, but not out-of-world, from the perspective of the DM.
 

clearstream

Be just and fear not...
All it takes is someone with a magical no-time-limit flying device, an accurate drawing hand, and a considerable amount of time and you've got as clear a map as you could ask for.

Flyer just goes up every clear day to a few thousand feet altitude and draws what she sees below. Next clear day, she goes to a place above the edge of the last map she drew, and repeat. Half of the second day's drawing will overlap the first day's, allowing for accuracy checks.

Lather rinse repeat until you've got the D&D version of the Ordnance Survey Maps the UK have. :)
"I wish I had a 1 inch = 30 miles scale map of Toril" said the Archmage.
 

Derren

Hero
Now, while there was long distance travel in the medieval, that's true, we're still talking a tiny percentage of people. So, yes, it is possible, but, certainly not commonly done. Sure, people did pilgrimages, but, it's not like they did it every year. The overwhelming majority of people likely wouldn't have traveled more than 20 miles from where they were born.

And, yes, I agree, most D&D worlds are FAR too big.

Not really.
Most people visited the nearest cities on market day to sell stuff and if it happened to be more than 20 miles away....
Also depending on the time you are talking about people could have been recruited for military service which of course involved long distance travelling. And even after that point in time may mercenaries existed that travelled all over the place. People also had to flee from war when it came to them.
And there were of course also merchants, sailores, etc.

Pilgrimages were also not all that uncommon. It wasn't always a big one going through several countries, but smaller pilgrimages to more local places also existed. And while not an annual occurrence for any individual, pilgrimages were common enough to be a not trivial economic factor.
And you had things like the Hajj which everyone was expected to do at least once.
 

Hussar

Legend
Not really.
Most people visited the nearest cities on market day to sell stuff and if it happened to be more than 20 miles away....
Also depending on the time you are talking about people could have been recruited for military service which of course involved long distance travelling. And even after that point in time may mercenaries existed that travelled all over the place. People also had to flee from war when it came to them.
And there were of course also merchants, sailores, etc.

Pilgrimages were also not all that uncommon. It wasn't always a big one going through several countries, but smaller pilgrimages to more local places also existed. And while not an annual occurrence for any individual, pilgrimages were common enough to be a not trivial economic factor.
And you had things like the Hajj which everyone was expected to do at least once.

Most people would visit the nearest village on market day. Not that many people would travel over a day to sell their wares on market day and then need to travel over a day to come home. And, again, military service, like Crusades and the like, is still a tiny fraction of the population. Right off the bat, you're excluding women, children and anyone over the age of about 30 (ish) from lengthy military service. Sailors? Merchants? Sure, but, again, we're still talking a tiny slice of people.

Someone might travel for more than a day or two once in their lifetime, but, that was about it. I'd be shocked if more than 10% of your population had traveled much more than that in their lifetime.

I'm not sure why saying that medieval populations were not terribly mobile is an arguable point. Hell, depending on when you want to talk about, a very large portion of the population wasn't allowed to travel - serfs could not leave their land. Farmers can't bugger off for two or three days. I'm a little unsure why this is being questioned.
 

Benjamin Olson

Adventurer
It usually is, because the map is serving a DM who stands outside the game world. They need a consistent resource. What you are discussing makes sense in-world, but not out-of-world, from the perspective of the DM.

Sure, but unless this godlike DM speaks unto the characters and gives them metagame geographical knowledge, then they will only ever experience an in-world conception of space, and for most purposes the DM doesn't need a precise calculation of distances beyond this. If the villager says that they must travel 10 leagues through the Swamp of Despair to reach their destination, meaning in world that it is a ten hour walk, that is what matters to the game.

The likelihood that these leagues are through places where the travel is slower than traveling down, say, the King's Road through Fairhavenshire and that they have never officially been measured by the Surveyor's Guild means it is entirely likely that villager is wrong on the distance in terms of the officially promulgated 3 mile length of a league, and instead of a 30 mile journey he is actually describing a 15 mile one. That might be an interesting bit of trivia for the DM in their worldbuilding, but for the actual gaming, it's still 10 hours of in-game travel time and that is probably the thing that matters. Ten hours is the story. 15 miles is just something in that endless pile of worldbuilding notes the DM does to satisfy his inner Tolkien.

That said, modern humans are used to thinking in terms of maps and if travel time based distances drives you bonkers because you are trying to map everything out then don't use them. I'm just saying that another alternative is dispensing somewhat with maps and just having time based narrative distances. This is often as detailed as your geography needs to be, may be easier for everyone involved, and may be more "realistic" for some campaign settings.
 
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Derren

Hero
Most people would visit the nearest village on market day. Not that many people would travel over a day to sell their wares on market day and then need to travel over a day to come home. And, again, military service, like Crusades and the like, is still a tiny fraction of the population. Right off the bat, you're excluding women, children and anyone over the age of about 30 (ish) from lengthy military service. Sailors? Merchants? Sure, but, again, we're still talking a tiny slice of people.

Someone might travel for more than a day or two once in their lifetime, but, that was about it. I'd be shocked if more than 10% of your population had traveled much more than that in their lifetime.

I'm not sure why saying that medieval populations were not terribly mobile is an arguable point. Hell, depending on when you want to talk about, a very large portion of the population wasn't allowed to travel - serfs could not leave their land. Farmers can't bugger off for two or three days. I'm a little unsure why this is being questioned.

You are underestimating the importance of pilgrimages. Those were quite common even among the lower classes, at least to more local shrines, and serfs were often given the permission to undertake them (basically the only way they could leave their village). Woman too did undertake them, often widows.
And as I said for muslims there was the Hajj and while it was not followed by absolutely everyone you can bet that far more than 10% did undertake it.

War also happened a lot more frequently which both results in people getting drafted or having to flee. And in some regions of the world craftsmen were actually required to travel far at the end of their apprenticeship, both to learn how things are done in other regions and to not become a competition to their master.
So be shocked.
 
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clearstream

Be just and fear not...
Sure, but unless this godlike DM speaks unto the characters and gives them metagame geographical knowledge, then they will only ever experience an in-world conception of space, and for most purposes the DM doesn't need a precise calculation of distances beyond this. If the villager says that they must travel 10 leagues through the Swamp of Despair to reach their destination, meaning in world that it is a ten hour walk, that is what matters to the game.

The likelihood that these leagues are through places where the travel is slower than traveling down, say, the King's Road through Fairhavenshire and that they have never officially been measured by the Surveyor's Guild means it is entirely likely that villager is wrong on the distance in terms of the officially promulgated 3 mile length of a league, and instead of a 30 mile journey he is actually describing a 15 mile one. That might be an interesting bit of trivia for the DM in their worldbuilding, but for the actual gaming, it's still 10 hours of in-game travel time and that is probably the thing that matters. Ten hours is the story. 15 miles is just something in that endless pile of worldbuilding notes the DM does to satisfy his inner Tolkien.

That said, modern humans are used to thinking in terms of maps and if travel time based distances drives you bonkers because you are trying to map everything out then don't use them. I'm just saying that another alternative is dispensing somewhat with maps and just having time based narrative distances. This is often as detailed as your geography needs to be, may be easier for everyone involved, and may be more "realistic" for some campaign settings.
I generally run open-world campaigns, and follow Tolkien's thoughts on mapping: unless I get a clear map in place up front, later narrative consistency becomes problematic. It's not a "bit of trivia"; it is a tool for managing my campaign world.

The level, hammer and screwdriver are not the painting hung on the wall, but they are useful tools in ensuring that it is hung securely and straight. Years ago - inspired by images of ancient maps - I tried using time scale maps for a campaign. I gave that up as it is not easy to use... something as simple and predictable as a forced march or change in season messes with it.
 

Hussar

Legend
You are underestimating the importance of pilgrimages. Those were quite common even among the lower classes, at least to more local shrines, and serfs were often given the permission to undertake them (basically the only way they could leave their village). Woman too did undertake them, often widows.
And as I said for muslims there was the Hajj and while it was not followed by absolutely everyone you can bet that far more than 10% did undertake it.

War also happened a lot more frequently which both results in people getting drafted or having to flee. And in some regions of the world craftsmen were actually required to travel far at the end of their apprenticeship, both to learn how things are done in other regions and to not become a competition to their master.
So be shocked.

But, again, you're still talking skilled workers. And, not all skilled workers either - French and German skilled workers.

Look, it's pretty simple. The overwhelming majority of the population in Europe was farmers, fishers, and other workers who would be tied to a specific location. Every exception you mention is still just a drop in the bucket. Are you seriously suggesting that the majority of medieval people would travel, repeatedly, more than a day away from their home?

Once in their lifetime? Twice? Sure. I can see that. But repeatedly? The majority of people? That does not jive with any description of medieval life I've ever seen.
 

Once in their lifetime? Twice? Sure. I can see that. But repeatedly? The majority of people? That does not jive with any description of medieval life I've ever seen.

I think what Derren is disagreeing with isn't the idea that most people spent most of their lives in the same place, but with what you said above:

The overwhelming majority of people likely wouldn't have traveled more than 20 miles from where they were born.
 

Derren

Hero
I think what Derren is disagreeing with isn't the idea that most people spent most of their lives in the same place, but with what you said above:
Exactly. Most people did engage in, for that time, ling distance travel (travelling for several days) several times in their lives even the serfs.
And a few professions travelled a lot.

Religious tourism was a huge factor in that, but that often gets overlooked in worldbuilding.
 


lewpuls

Adventurer
I've not seen an example from real-world use, but for ordinary people a connectivity map might be more useful than a distance map. Connectivity map: circles for locations, connecting lines with travel time listed. If by river, the line would follow the river, if by sea, the sea, if significant terrain, color the line accordingly.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
If we take a look at a famous late medieval map of England...

With respect, the historical accuracy argument for fantasy role playing games that hardly even know what feudalism entailed is not terribly convincing. I have dragons, wizards, and not a serf to be seen, and you're saying we should be historically accurate with our game maps?

Our game maps are there as support for gameplay, first and foremost. Our duffer's impression on what they might have looked like in a historical context is not a primary concern.

we see why giving things in miles isn't really more exact than hours

And now, we should discuss the difference between precision and accuracy.

How "exact" a thing is is a matter of precision. A measurement down to the nearest quarter inch is more exact and precise than a measurement down to the inch. We are talking about maps on the scale of towns, nations, and continents on one sheet of paper, precision is not the primary concern. I don't care how exact it is when the map tells us "somewhere in this 5 mile hex". That, my good fellow gamer, is not terribly precise, and it works just fine for most of our long-distance mapping needs.

Accuracy is about how correct a thing is. Having a map that tells us that the Forgarian Monolith is 2.3459 days travel away is not relevant if the map says it is to the east, when in reality it is to the north. Exacting measurement is not helpful if it does not represent the needed thing as it actually is.

For game purposes, a vague map that gives us the correct idea is better than an exact map that we have to bend our brains around to use properly.

Now, if the whole adventure is taking place in some advanced, bureaucratic empire with a corp of cartographers surveying the realm then perhaps it makes sense to have everyone talk about distances in precise units.

The game is played in a world with Wish spells, and giants in flying castles, and spirits that can be bargained with, and elves and dragons that have centuries of time to work with....
 



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